THE STATE, TRADITION, COMMUNITY, AND CHARACTER-BUILDING
Is George Will Actually a (20th-century American) Liberal in Disguise?

April 1988By Charles L. Garrettson III

Charles L. Garrettson III is a Lecturer in Religion at Muh­lenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Like George Will, he is an Episcopalian and wears bow ties.

George Will has argued that in America “there are almost no conservatives, properly understood.” Yet he has been quite open in his claim to be such a conservative. Will’s conservatism has been marked by a willingness to criticize, and at times denounce, what in fact passes for conservatism in this coun­try. The question is: Is the basis for his doing so truly conservative, or is it more truly liberal?

Whatever Will is, he is certainly not the type of conservative who claims the name in the cham­bers of America’s commerce. Will does not necessarily equate General Motors’ good with The Good. He has said, for instance, that “Conservatives rightly defend the market as a marvelous mechanism for allocating resources. But when conservatives begin regarding the market less as an expedient than as an ultimate value, or the ultimate arbiter of all values, their conservatism degenerates....”

He makes clear his distance from what is normally regarded as conservatism: “I cheerfully concede what some soi-disant conservatives charge: my conserva­tism is not theirs. Some of what passes for conservatism is a radically anti-polit­ical ideology, decayed Jeffersonianism characterized by a frivolous hostility to­ward the state, and lacking the tradition­al conservative appreciation of the dig­nity of the political vocation and the grandeur of its responsibilities.”

He calls his own kind of conservatism “traditional” or “proper” or “European” conservatism. He dis­tinguishes this from what is “merely a defense of industrialism and individualist ‘free market’ eco­nomics.” He does so by arguing that whereas “con­servatism [that is, ‘authentic’ conservatism] is about the cultivation and conservation of certain values, or it is nothing,” what has passed for con­servatism in this country has, to me contrary, tend­ed to sponsor an “industrialism [which] has been a thorough solvent of traditional value….”


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